Friday, October 9, 2009

Chicago Children's Theatre's World Premier of The Hundred Dresses Impresses

Sunday, I took my two junior critics to see The Hundred Dresses, presented by Chicago Children's Theatre.  It passed both the gender and age tests, and got a resounding cheer and two little thumbs up, from my 8 year old boy and 6 year old girl.

This production is Chicago Children's Theatre's most ambitious undertaking to date, and they rose to the challenge admirably.   The acting, sets, and costumes are all fabulous.   And the musical itself is extremely entertaining, enlightening and well written.

Natalie Berg and Leslie Ann Sheppard, were especially impressive.

Even my actual third grader, Dugan, declared those two made the most convincing 8 year olds.  That's not an easy feat for adults to pull off.

 Chicago Children's Theatre has been a favorite of ours, since January of 2006, when we saw their excellent, inaugural production of A Year With Frog and Toad.   Now they've embarked on another first, with the world premier of The Hundred Dresses, a musical by Ralph Covert (of Ralph's World fame) and G. Riley Mills, based on the 1944 children's book by Eleanor Estes.

Although Eleanor Estes died in 1988, her daughter, Helena Estes, was able to come to the press opening last Sunday, to see the contemporary offspring her Mother's award winning book gave birth to.    Although 65 years have passed since Estes published her Polish immigrant tale, bullies have changed little, and The Hundred Dresses is still timely.   With a compelling sound track, colorful characters, timeless themes, and a necessary message, The Hundred Dresses musical is sure to become a classic.

One of our favorite aspects of this premier production, was the interesting choice to bridge the decades between the present and the original book, with an inclusive array of visual and musical choices.   The little red school house hearkened back to simpler times.   Sketches for the 100 dresses looked like 1940's Vogue patterns.    Then the rich girls' dresses, bobby socks and saddle shoes were vintage 1950's.

The retro lunch boxes were straight out of the mid 70's.   In fact, I got a nostalgic kick out of the fact that I had the same lunch box as the Peggy character, in my childhood.   Miss Mason, the teacher's holiday costumes were this millennium, as were the recent musical choices of the opening band, like "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" by The Flaming Lips.

This is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Week, October 4-10th.   So, what better time for Chicago Children's Theatre to launch their run.   It's estimated that 160,000 children in the United States miss school each day, as a result of being bullied.   So, Estes original message of bullying and it's concequences is still timely, and as necessary as ever.   There are still many children who are cruel to new immigrants, those with less money, or those a little different.   And it's eye opening to many children to realize that teasing and taunting, or even standing by and allowing a bully to continue unchallenged, can be just as harmful as bullying in a physical way.

The show skillfully touches on common ways boys bully, with the humorous song, "Willie Bounce", which recounts physical bullying, threatening, and lunch theft.   The two male characters also provide levity to a serious subject, and make sure The Hundred Dresses won't only be relevant to the princess set.  Willie's bumbling antics and amusing costumes, which included cowboy, robot, Superman and Tiny Tim, add comic relief and amused parents and children alike.

The girls' bullying runs throughout the production, and takes the more subtle, and often more destructive, bent of psychological games.   Childhood is a time of playfulness and wonder, well captured by the giant swing set and playground games, in this production.   Childhood is also a time of great cruelty, lessons in negotiating friendships, peer pressure, fitting in, and ultimately, great compassion.    If even some of the children who come to see The Hundred Dresses leave with the strength to recognize and reign in cruel behavior and words in themselves, and challenge those actions in others, then Chicago Children's Theatre has performed a great service.

 In the lobby, before the show, children can color dresses or boats that may be used in future productions.

Children can also enter to win a "Chrissa" Doll (2009 Girl of the Year, who experienced bullying) courtesy of American Girl Theater, or purchase The Hundred Dresses book and related toys.  

The interactive atmosphere continues inside during seating, as an opening band plays upbeat favorites from the 1950's to the present.  Characters roam the audience, encouraging goofy 50's and 60's style dance moves, and chat one on one with kids.

In the lobby, directly after the show, cast members are available to meet the audience and sign the all important autographs.

 My kids treasure all their signed programs, and when they dress up and put on productions at home, the plays always end with autographs.   Despite the traffic jam it caused, the kids were thrilled that the actors continued that noble tradition.

As we posted last week on ChiIL Mama, children are encouraged to share their stories about bullying on line by emailing them to where they will select some for posting each week. Also available on the website is an extensive down loadable study guide, as well as interviews with director Sean Graney and members of the cast of The Hundred Dresses.

Today, we got the excellent news that their run has just been extended till November 8th, due to popular demand.   Shows are at The Royal George Theatre Mainstage and run Tuesday, Wednesday (10/21, 10/28 and 11/4) and every Thursday and Friday at 10:30a.m.   Weekends, shows run Saturdays and Sundays at noon and 3p.m.  

School group discounts and discounts for birthday parties of 10 or more, are available through GroupTixs, with details on line.

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